If you get a text message from a friend that reads “God’s not dead,” you’ll know they’ve been to the movies recently. That’s because the Christian-themed film God’s Not Dead ends with an on-screen plea for audience members to text the film’s titular message to everyone in their contacts list. Here’s a movie whose concept is just interesting enough to make you wish the execution was better. While it most certainly has some very good qualities, it is ultimately undone — at least for general audiences — by a completely unsubtle desire to do more than simply tell a meaningful story; it wants to rock the world.
Shane Harper plays college freshman Josh Wheaton, who signs up for a philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). To make sure everyone is prepared for what he plans to teach, the avowed atheist asks each of them to write the words “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign their name to it. This renunciation of the Lord will be vital to getting into the correct mindset to ace the course, he assures his students. Josh is a Christian, though, and he refuses to do it. Radisson then announces that he will give Josh twenty minutes at the end of the next three classes to convince his peers that God exists. (In a major stretch of credibility, apparently not one single other student in the class is Christian.) If they don’t buy it, he fails the course. Josh begins making his case, but his increasingly angry professor attempts to refute him at every turn.
When God’s Not Dead sticks to the classroom, it’s engrossing. The characters engage in very well-written point/counterpoint sessions, and their individual arguments are interesting and thought-provoking. You can easily become wrapped up in them, much in the same way you would if you were attending a debate and listening to both sides haul out the most powerful evidence in their arsenals. Harper and Sorbo deliver committed, believable performances, which helps sell the adversarial dynamic between Josh and Radisson. The classroom scenes of God’s Not Dead do a fine job depicting the ongoing cultural discussion of science versus religion, and whether there can be any intersection between the two.
The problem is that the movie keeps veering out of the classroom to focus on a handful of supporting characters with little or no connection to Josh. There’s a leftist blogger, also an atheist, whose job seems to be harassing Christian celebrities, including Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson and rock group The Newsboys (both of whom have awkwardly forced cameos). There’s also Radisson’s girlfriend, who, ironically enough, is a believer; a minister desperately trying to take a vacation with a visiting missionary but unable to find a car that works; a young woman hiding her belief in Jesus from her strict Muslim father; and a morally bankrupt businessman (played by Dean Cain) who callously ignores his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother. The film tries to surprise you with revelations (no pun intended) about how these characters are connected to each other, but they are ultimately far less interesting than the classroom debate.
God’s Not Dead has a final act that is frustrating. After the Josh/Radisson plot wraps up, the movie goes on to bring all the characters together at a rock concert, where a miracle happens and souls are saved. It’s done with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head. Finally, there’s the aforementioned plea to text your friends as the credits roll. Christian audiences will probably forgive the grand finale since it does, after all, most blatantly drive home the message about the Lord’s capacity for greatness. While that message is certainly uplifting, the way it’s delivered detrimentally shifts the movie’s tone into something beyond melodrama.
In the end, God’s Not Dead is really two movies. The one about the student standing up to his bullying professor is pretty good. The one involving everyone else winding their way toward a miracle is heavy-handed and didactic. It’s a shame that second movie gets in the way of the first.